More at stake than usual in PGA championship

More often than not, the PGA has been golf's meaningless major championship. Not so this week.

In the past, the tournament was played on lesser courses, for lesser rewards. Coming last on the schedule - following the Masters and the US and British Opens - it easily could be an anticlimax.

The only way the PGA could mean anything significant in most years was for a player to be going for the Grand Slam - a remote possibility at best.

Here at hot and steamy Southern Hills, however, Tom Watson is going for the next best thing. He's won the US and British Opens back to back, and is trying to become the second man in modern professional golf history to win three majors in a season.

Ben Hogan won the Masters and the two Opens back in 1953, but could not compete in the PGA because it was scheduled too close to the British then. (Bobby Jones won the original version of the Grand Slam in 1930 when he swept the US and British Opens and Amateurs).

Jack Nicklaus never has won more than two majors in a year. He too has a lustrous goal in mind here at Southern Hills Country Club: he keenly wants to win a sixth PGA to pull out of a tie in the record book with the legendary Walter Hagen.

Hagen dominated the PGA at match play in the Roaring '20s, winning in 1921 and then capturing four straight titles from 1924 through '27. Nicklaus has dominated it at medal play, winning in 1963, '71, '73, '75 and '80.

This has not been one of the 43-year-old Nicklaus's better years. But he still gears himself magnificently for the big events, and he certainly played well enough to win the Open at Pebble Beach. But that, of course, was the tournament in which Tom Watson chipped in for a wonderful birdie on 17th and then birdied the 18th to win the first Open in his own glorious career.

For Watson, Nicklaus remains the man to watch.

''Jack's too good a player not to win more majors,'' he says. ''To some extent, I'm still living in his shadow. That's just the way it is when you come along and have to try to beat the greatest player of all time.''

Nicklaus owns 19 major titles to Watson's seven. Should Watson win here, he would equal Arnold Palmer's total of eight. Hogan and Gary Player are at nine, Hagen at 11, and Jones at 13, though comparisons are difficult since many of these totals, including Nicklaus's, include one or more amateur titles as well as the four championships currently thought of as major tournaments.

No one needs to remind Watson of the unusual importance being taken on by this 64th PGA.

''Winning three majors in a year would be sensational'' he says. ''I've taken two weeks off, and I'm going in rested and confident. I'm still riding the high from winning the two Opens, although I was disappointed in the way I won the British. It was given - it was a gift. I didn't feel that I won it.''

The champions can be choosy about the way they win. Players who are simply very good will take them any way they can get them.

Also in Watson's favor here is his fondness for the course, which is ranked in the top 10 of Golf Digest's 100 greatest in America.

''Southern Hills is a tremendous course, long and tough, but fair,'' he says. ''There are no real birdie holes. I'm a fan of the architect, the late Perry Maxwell, who did a lot of courses in this part of the country. Prairie Dunes in Kansas is another of my favorites.

''Maxwell makes you play all kinds of shots. He'll give you a hook lie for a save shot, for instance. But not on every shot - he doesn't get gimmicky.

''His courses, such as Southern Hills, have been changed very little over the years, which is a testimony to the quality of his work. I love the way his courses flow so naturally through their surroundings. They're a great test of shotmaking and great works of arts as well.''

Southern Hills will play at 6,862 yards in par 70 in this week's 72-hole test running from today through Sunday. Tommy Bolt's winning 283 in the 1958 US Open here was three over par, while Dave Stockton was one under at 279 in winning the 1970 PGA, and Hubert Green two under in taking the 1977 Open.

Driving is critical because all but two of the par 4 and par 5 holes offer doglegged fairways in one direction or the other. Tee shots must be carefully placed arond the corners of the doglegs due to tall trees and husky fairway bunkers. The 12th hole, a 440 yarder that swings left to a green guarded by sand and water, is one of the finest anywhere.

The bentgrass greens are medium sized, and many slope severely. ''Maxwell rolls'' his greens are called, and they live up to their name. The exciting contours are mindful of Augusta National, where Maxwell redesigned a number of the greens.

The PGA will give us a great setting and a chance to see great history made. This year, at least, it is much more than the ''meaningless'' major championship.

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